Theater Review: A Brilliant NCT Encore for ‘Schoolhouse Rock Live!’

NCT-SRLNashville Children’s Theatre has brought Schoolhouse Rock Live! back for an encore with new staging and cast that will light your fire.

Nashville’s premier professional troupe presented the stage adaptation of songs from the groundbreaking ABC-TV animated educational shorts series in 2006. That Julee Baber Brooks-directed show was inventively staged (Scott Leathers‘ chessboard-floor apartment set still springs to mind) and featured the A-1 talents of Jenny Littleton, Patrick Waller, Ross Brooks, D. Richard Browder, Brooke Bryant and Marin Miller.

How to follow that well-received production when mounting Schoolhouse Rock Live! again? Well, Producing Artistic Director Scot Copeland isn’t one for repeating past success when it comes to creating a memorable experience for the present. He and others behind the scenes have worked with triple-threat performers Janette Bruce, Daniel Collins, Lauren Jones and Ben Van Diepen to fashion a new production educationally and entertainingly assaults the senses.

If you didn’t see the previous production the basic setup is as follows: A new teacher is nervous about how he’ll get his pupils to learn until the “Schoolhouse Rock!” gang shows up. They lay down some groovy tunes that help him see musical ways to reach those young minds.

Those tunes – which include a terrific Texas-twanged “The Preamble” along with such well-known tunes as “Three is a Magic Number,” “Conjunction Junction,” “Verb: That’s What’s Happening,” “Unpack Your Adjectives” and ” Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla ” – are as fun and thought-encouraging are as they were four decades ago. Paul Carrol Binkley’s arrangements – keep in mind that country, funk, jazz, soul, pop and rock are contained in the multiple musical strands of the score – are among the finest and most eclectic in his distinguished career, and Musical Director Russel Davis makes the most of them.

The acting company – which involves the audience in much of the action – is wonderful; strong voices and movement, good choices and great energy are available in abundance. Two of my favorite moments are Jones’ soulful lead on “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” and the fun Collins has as the central figure in “Just a Bill,” though all are engaging throughout; “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing” is a good example of watching all shine as a unit.

Choreographer extraordinaire Pam Atha mixes exuberant dance styles from more than one decade into an eye-popping experience; adding to the visual delight are animation and live video worked nimbly into the show by Technical Director Michael Redman and Kitchen Sink, Inc. (favorable mentions of Bo Bogaev and Kimberly M. Townsend are appropriate here). And the rock-concert-style set designed by Leathers (who worked on the very complementary light calls with Assistant Lighting Designer Bill Rios) is apparently the first-ever all-welded-metal form to underpin the action on NCT’s stage (kudos to Scenic Artist Chip Boles as well).

Patricia Taber long ago proved she can provide costumes for all characters and stories, and her designs for this show, well, rock. I don’t know how she manages to come up with so many fresh ideas for each show year after year – I’m just happy to see the great results.

Sometimes encores can be let-downs because there’s nothing fresh to surprise us. Copeland and his NCT colleagues have fashioned a brilliant Schoolhouse Rock Live! revival that doesn’t rest on this extraordinary company’s past laurels.

Schoolhouse Rock Live! directed by Scot Copeland continues through Dec. 1 at Nashville Children’s Theatre (25 Middleton St. between Hermitage Ave. and Second Ave. S. They are in the Richard Fulton campus directly behind the Old Howard School Building). In addition to school day shows there are Saturday and Sunday family performances at 2 p.m. The show runs approximately one hour with a 10-minute intermission. After the 2 p.m. performance Nov. 9 the audience is encouraged to stay for a Q & A with some of the cast and technical staff to learn more about the show’s creation; for more special events connected with this production visit NCT’s website. For tickets (Youth up to age 17 and Students with ID: $12; Military, Educator and Seniors age 65 and up: $17; Other Adults: $20; Groups of ten or more: $12/person) call (615) 252-4675 or click here to buy online.

* Photo of (L to R) Daniel Collins and Janette Bruce by Colin Peterson courtesy NCT.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).